Letter to the editor: Tail is wagging dog in education

A recent “Seven Days” article highlighted Vermont Secretary of Administration Susanne Young’s Jan. 18, 2018, memo to legislators on reforming education funding. She listed 18 ideas the governor proposes for cost containment, funding reformation, and what she terms “Five-Year Initiatives.” No doubt, several of those “ideas” are worth exploring. As she wrote, “It is our view that Vermonters want us to work together and be willing to think outside the box that has constrained education financing discussions for many years.” Unfortunately, the thinking represented in that memo is still very much in the box.
The governor’s proposals, as well as every other suggested solution to our “education funding” challenge that I have seen come out of Montpelier this session, miss the mark. The focus seems to be on the tail, how we fund our schools, rather than on the dog itself, the design of the learning experience itself. Focusing on the input (of funds) rather than the output of our educational system (learned children) prevents us from truly thinking out of the box, and addressing the nature of how we choose to deliver education in our schools. It seems the tail is wagging the dog, rather than the other way around.
The “dog” represents the vast array of alternatives in curriculum, instruction, and structure of our learning environments. Innovations being practiced around the country, the world, and yes, in some of our schools in Vermont, are achieving high levels of learning at lower cost than many conventional models. For instance, blended learning, flipped classrooms, independent study, and virtual school initiatives are freeing up teacher time while empowering young learners. Integrated curricula, competency-based education, and personalized learning create a more focused, efficient body of skills and knowledge for our students. Structured volunteerism, mentorships, work-study programs, and internships capitalize on community resources not measured in dollars. And, professional networks and action research strengthen our teachers, enabling them to be more effective and efficient.
We are not alone in the quest for affordable education. Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education is all about identifying and promoting a strategic approach to the notion of affordability. The internet is replete with articles about cost-effectiveness (e.g. For Cost Effective School Reform, Go to the Principal’s Office; The Cost-Effectiveness of Comprehensive School Reform and Rapid Assessment; Rethinking the finance system for improved student achievement). All we have to do is mobilize our educators, universities, and communities to really “think out of the box” and we can find ways to make our schools affordable again.
I look to our governor and legislators for leadership in a movement to make our schools better — better for students, better for teachers and administrators, and better for taxpayers. Shifting the discussion from how to reduce costs to how to make our education system more cost-effective would spark renewed interest in exploring the many alternatives out there. Leadership from Montpelier could inspire innovators at our universities and in our schools to come together to coordinate efforts and scale up those practices that work.
Not every initiative out there will fit our state or individual communities, but surely addressing the cost-effectiveness of educational practice must be a major part of our quest for affordable quality schools in Vermont.
Rick Detwiler
North Ferrisburgh

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